Vino & Veritas: Cheap wine, pasta, and pizza

BY JOSH SOLOMON

Here’s the situation: It’s mid-week. You finished class and three job interviews. You have an hour to make and eat dinner before a 7:30 meeting back on campus. Your options are the classic pasta with red sauce or pizza. You’d like a glass of wine too. What do you pour?

To give credit where credit’s due, it was my friend and fellow 3L Louis Tompros who suggested this situation for a column. But also to give abuse where abuse is due, Louis said something else deserving of a digression. Pasta and red sauce was one of the common mid-week meals for which he needed a wine to match. Macaroni and cheese was another. He said he tended to eat the latter with White Zinfandel. White Zinfandel, that horrible, cloyingly sweet pink stuff from California, not to be confused with good rosé, is wine for people who don’t really like wine. It should not be had with macaroni and cheese. In fact, it should not be had. Ever.

Back to the point. In figuring out which wines work well with simple pasta or pizza, I came up with a few guiding principles.

Get something cheap. There is a school of thought that claims it is not worth spending $30 for a bottle of wine when there are plenty of decent $10 bottles out there. I don’t go to that school. There certainly are plenty of decent $10 bottles, and even an occasional great one. But there are many more great $30 bottles that are worth every penny. That said, you don’t always need one. Such is the case when you are eating a rushed meal and quaffing down a glass of wine (although do keep the quaffing to a minimum, as you will miss so much of what the wine has to offer). When you lack the time to savor the wine, you probably want to avoid paying too much for it. Moreover, I often share my mid-week bottles with the kitchen drain, as I never seem to finish them before they go bad. When that is inevitable, you want the dollar-per-ounce-dumped to be as low as possible.

You probably want to avoid wines that are too complex and powerful. Assuming we are talking about jarred Ragu and Pizza Ring, the meal will be pretty bland. A meaty, complex cabernet or merlot, or a heavily fruited zinfandel, will overwhelm the food, emphasizing its blandness. Of course, the more savory the meal — moving, say, from Ragu to a homemade bolognese — the more powerful a wine it can handle. Sticking to the whip-it-up-quickly motif, however, you probably want to avoid going too hearty with the wine.

Finally, you want a rather acidic wine. This sounds more technical than it actually is; you don’t actually need to have a Ph strip handy. Higher-acid wines are those that have a refreshing, mouth-cleansing feel — like sucking on a lemon. They dry out your mouth, but quickly cause saliva to follow. Because tomato sauce is relatively acidic, your wine may seem bland, even tasteless, if it lacks acid in comparison.

So how does this translate into particular wines? Certain southern European reds are a good bet. Chianti, which comes from Tuscany and is usually made entirely from sangiovese grapes, fits the bill. The same is true of wines from barbera grapes, a specialty of the Piedmont region in northwest Italy. Both comprise a substantial share of Italy’s vino da tavola — everyday drinking wines. Both are fairly light-bodied, low in tannin, and high in acid. Other options include wines from tempranillo grapes, the chief ingredient in wines from Spain’s famous Rioja region. Less well known, but equally suitable, are red wines from periquita grapes, grown in southern Portugal.

I chose three of these to taste, restricting myself to under $10 per bottle. Apropos of the theme here, I paired them with a Domino’s Pizza.

2000 Melini Borhi D’Elsa Chianti ($9.99). This wine from the well-known Chianti-maker Melini had an almost glowing light purple color, with a grapey, flowery aroma. In the mouth, it was light, very dry, acidic and somewhat bitter. While it fit the pasta/pizza model well, I can’t say I enjoyed it much.

1997 José Maria de Fonsecca Successores Periquita ($9.99). This Portuguese periquita had an earthy, petrol nose. Its taste was fruity (berries) and sour, with refreshing acidity. It was fuller, wilder, and more interesting than the others — easily my favorite of the three.

2000 Marchesi Di Barolo Maràia Barbera Monferrato ($8.99). Black cherries, on both the nose and palate, dominated this barbera. It was far softer than the other two, with a surprising sweetness. I liked it, but thought it not particularly interesting. I got the sense that with a little time in the bottle, the cherry flavor would tone down and it would grow more interesting.

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